Pathway to the Paralegal Profession: How to Become a Paralegal

The paralegal profession is a classic example of a rewarding occupation that can be achieved without a traditional four year degree. If you would like to learn how to become a paralegal or are just curious to learn more about this profession and the opportunities that exist, you are in the right place.

Most states do not regulate the paralegal profession or mandate that paralegals achieve a certain level of education or training. This affords individuals a tremendous amount of flexibility when it comes to entering this rewarding profession. However, attorneys are legally responsible for the paralegals under them and essentially vouch for them.

Thus, even though there may not be state requirements for paralegals in many states, attorneys self-regulate in order to protect themselves from liability. Consequently, attorneys will have their own minimum education or experience requirements for paralegals they would like to hire.

Individuals from all different walks of life enter the paralegal profession in a variety of manners.

Different Ways to Become a Paralegal

There are five primary ways an individual can become a paralegal.

The first option is to secure employment with a law firm as a legal secretary and then work your way up to a paralegal by demonstrating aptitude, motivation and the requisite skills and talents. While this is not the path we would advise one to take if they are seriously interested in becoming a paralegal, it can and does happen regularly. Never underestimate the power of being in the right place at the right time. Many careers were boosted by the simple fact that they were the only person immediately available to step up when a person who previously occupied the position left for another opportunity.

Another option for prospective paralegals is to enroll in a comprehensive online or real-world paralegal studies course. These programs can be completed in a year or less and offer individuals tremendous flexibility, especially those who are seeking to make a career change and must maintain their current working status to pay the bills. Once a student has successfully completed the program and earned a certificate in paralegal studies, they would then seek out an entry-level position or an internship. It is imperative that an individual pursuing these first two paths simply work to get their foot in the door so that they may acquire the requisite experience for their resume.

The third and likely most efficient and effective way to become a paralegal is to complete a two-year program at a local community college and acquire your Associate of Arts in Paralegal Studies degree. Although it will require an additional year of study it should provide you with a better foundation of knowledge and also make it easier to find your first entry-level position. The fact of the matter is that we are still in a very competitive job market as our nation rebounds from this terrible economy and you need to consider your marketability in comparison to other applicants.

The fourth option for those wishing to be a paralegal consists of acquiring a traditional four year degree or even a master’s degree in paralegal studies. Those possessing a college degree in another field also have the option of acquiring a certificate in paralegal studies. Frankly, we view bachelor and graduate degree programs in paralegal studies to be excessive and a low return on investment. While there will always be exceptions, we believe an individual who demonstrates a strong work ethic and exhibits exemplary qualities and skills will be better positioned to advance and earn higher salaries.

Finally, college graduates without any paralegal experience but possessing certain technical, field or industry specific knowledge are sometimes hired by a law firm to fill an expertise void. If you are a college graduate and feel that you possess a degree of competency that may be beneficial to a certain law firm then this may be an option for those seeking to make a career change.

Distance & Online Learning Options for Paralegals

Prospective paralegals may choose to pursue a career by enrolling in a distance education or online paralegal studies program. It is essential that you research the accreditation of the institution you consider, including tuition costs, job placement metrics and general reputation with the employers in your market.

Note that the American Bar Association does not approve online programs. This does not mean that all other schools are inferior or worthless. You need to do your due diligence. This is simply another factor you must weigh in determining your education path.

California has the most stringent requirements for paralegals and permits graduates from schools accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).

American Bar Association Approved Programs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 1,000 paralegal studies programs in the United States. Approximately 270 of these are approved by the American Bar Association. It isn’t a requirement that you learn via an ABA approved paralegal studies program. However, it may increase your chances of being hired over other applicants, especially if you are located in a competitive area of the country or reside in a particular state.

Test-Drive a Legal Career

The paralegal job description is remarkably similar to that of an attorney. It is important to remember that a paralegal performs many of the same functions that an attorney would perform. However, this only occurs through the acquisition of knowledge, on-the-job experience and the development of a strong relationship between you and your firm so that they feel confident in giving you greater responsibilities with minimal oversight.

The potential exists for paralegals who prove themselves to be invaluable contributors to a practice or firm to earn substantial compensation.

Putting the movies and television shows aside, individuals have an opportunity to truly test-drive the profession of practicing law when they become a paralegal. Many attorneys spend seven or more years of their life and rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before finding out that being a lawyer isn’t what they thought it would be. Paralegals can get into the legal profession with a much smaller investment of time and money. And if a paralegal decides they want to be an attorney, they will have a leg up over fellow law school classmates where they can draw from actual job experience and apply it to their studies.